VRH doctor part of team performing nerve surgeries in Ecuador

CLAREMONT — Compared to Ecuador, people in the United States have it pretty good — a sentiment made all the more clear when visiting the small South American country, says Dr. James P. Wilton, FACFAS.

“I wish Americans could see what the rest of the world experiences to realize how lucky we have it,” he said. “If you don’t work, you don’t eat.”

This past summer, Wilton, who is the Medical Staff President for Valley Regional Hospital, led a group of 21 surgeons, nurses and volunteers in a weeklong trip to Ecuador to perform surgeries on patients experiencing nerve pain and symptoms resulting from Hansen’s Disease, more commonly known as leprosy. The recent trip marks the 16th time since 2002 that he has made the journey.

“It changes your life,” he said of the experience. “The things you worry about living here in this country melt away when you go down there […] They’re so joyful in life.”

Leprosy is caused by a bacteria that attaches to nerve cells in the arms and legs. While antibiotics can kill a majority of the bacteria, some attaches to the nerves and causes inflammation when white blood cells attempt to remove it, essentially killing the nerves over time due to swelling and constriction. This can lead to a loss of sensation and other disabilities in the limbs.

Wilton said the disease is still prevalent in the region. His team — which has been as large as 30 people — performs nerve decompression surgeries to remove the scar tissue from the nerves.

Wilton began making the trip at the suggestion of a co-worker who had performed medical work in the country before. For the first couple of years, Wilton performed pediatric work. But in 2004, the focus switched to surgeries on patients suffering from leprosy when Wilton began working closely with Sister Annie Credidio.

Credidio began volunteering in the Hansens wing of a hospital in Guayaquil, an Ecuadorian city of roughly 2.5 million, in the 1980s. In the 1990s, she and other hospital volunteers reorganized the Hansen’s wing to form Damien House as a separate facility dedicated to treating patients with leprosy. She went on to found the Damien House charitable organization, a U.S.-based group that invites donors to aid in the effort, all according to the Damien House website.

Wilton said that prior to the weeklong trip, a shorter trip is scheduled to screen patients. In that roughly three-day trip, Wilton and a handful of doctors screen about 130 people for symptoms. The team then narrows down which patients will be operated on based on symptoms — usually about 40, all of whom have been treated for leprosy and show signs or symptoms of pain or paralysis. The full team then returns for the weeklong stay to perform surgeries at the Hospital Luis Vernaza in Guayaquil.

The journey brings together highly trained medical professionals from a wide swath of the country — surgeons from Texas, California, Arizona, Maine, Wisconsin and the granite state were among those that flew down in June. Prior to their involvement with Damien House, Wilton said there was no nerve work being done in the country.

“We pull from all across the [United States],” Wilton said. “The results have been fantastic.”

Since 2004, “Annie’s Angels,” as the group has been named, has performed hundreds of successful surgeries. Over the years, a number of Wilton’s grateful patients have sent him home with gifts that sit on a shelf in his office — a rock painted to look like a tiger, a miniature model of the stilted homes common in the rural parts of Ecuador.

Among the trinkets and books is a recent photo of one of his 2004 patients, Grace Zambrano, along with her children. Prior to the surgery, then-21-year-old Zambrano couldn’t perform some simple tasks such as brushing her hair because the disease had resulted in contractures in her hands.

“She couldn’t hold her son, as a baby. She couldn’t feed him with a bottle,” he said. “She had so much pain in her hand.”

Zambrano was one of the first patients to undergo surgery and has returned to normal function. She and her husband have since had two more children, Wilton said.

To learn more about the program and how to donate, visit thedamienhouse.org. (This article originally appeared in the Eagle Times.)